Friday, August 14, 2015

Cousins

I’ve always felt that it was rather unfortunate that Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) is regarded as a classic romantic comedy while Cousins (1989) is barely remembered at all. Of course, I’m biased as I don’t really care for the former and adore the latter, a remake of the 1975 French comedy Cousin, cousine, directed by Joel Schumacher in-between box office hits The Lost Boys (1987) and Flatliners (1990). There are superficial similarities between Four Weddings and Cousins as romance blossoms among wedding ceremonies and a funeral – call it, Three Weddings and a Funeral. From there they deviate significantly in pretty much every way but over the years Four Weddings has not aged all that well while Cousins has aged like a fine wine and I find myself savoring it more every time I watch it.

Right from the first scene Schumacher establishes the parallels between our two lead characters with Larry Kozinski (Ted Danson) running late to a wedding thanks to his wife Tish (Sean Young) while Tom Hardy (William Petersen) makes his family late to the same wedding because he doesn’t want his daughter Chloe (Katharine Isabelle) to bring her blanket in his newly-cleaned car, much to his wife Maria’s (Isabella Rossellini) exasperation. Larry and Maria are in respectively unhappy marriages with Tish disgruntled that they have to travel everywhere on a motorcycle while Tom resents Maria siding with their daughter.

Our story begins with the wedding of Phil Kozinski (George Coe) and Edie Hardy (Norma Aleandro). Phil’s nephew Larry, with Tish and his son Mitch (Keith Coogan) in tow, arrive late to the actual ceremony as does Edie’s daughter Maria and her family. Everyone gathers for the reception and it’s exactly the kind of joyful gathering you’d expect from the merging of two large families complete with loud music and plenty of drinking. Schumacher even adds little bits of color, like the two lecherous groomsmen that ogle all the women at the party, complete with running commentary (“Bad tits,” they say of one, and “No ass,” they say of another). There are even two young people that spot each other and lock eyes in love at first sight. You know that they will be a married couple by film’s end.


In the youth-obsessed culture we live in it’s great to see two older people getting married and so happy and in love with each other, which makes what happens to them later on that much more painful because we’ve grown to care for them in such a short time. Larry is the kind of good-naturedly flawed character we’ve come to expect from these kinds of rom-coms as typified when he tries to deliver a toast to Phil only to be ignored by the noisy gathering and then when given the floor to say his piece, ends up delivering an endearingly awkward tribute. On the other hand, Tom is a hothead that gets into an argument with one of Maria’s relatives at the first wedding that almost comes to blows before storming off in a huff. He’s pursued by Tish, who spotted him earlier, and they go off to have sex somewhere.

As everyone leaves, Maria and Larry find themselves without their respective spouses and get to talking. Schumacher bathes them in the warm, golden light of the setting sun that is so welcoming that you are transported there. Maria finds Larry easy to talk to and likes how good he is with Chloe. Tom and Tish finally show-up with lame excuses and the reaction on the faces of Larry and Maria tell us that even though they’re too polite to say anything they know what their respective spouses have been doing.

Maria meets Larry on her lunch break and they acknowledge that their spouses are having an affair. They strike up a friendship and pretend to have an affair to get back at Tom and Tish, but they soon find themselves attracted to each other. Almost 40 minutes in and Lloyd Bridges enters the picture as Phil’s gregarious brother Vince, showing up at a funeral but only from a distance as he says to Larry, “At my age you don’t want to get too close to an open grave,” and then lights a cigarette immediately afterwards. Bridges makes an instant impact with his crackerjack comic timing and delivery of dialogue when Vince confides to Mitch, “God makes me nervous when you get him indoors. Besides, I don’t like to see people in their coffins – they always look so much smaller without their spirits.” He is the film’s most obvious attempt to appeal to the cheap seats and threatens to dispel the romantic mood that Schumacher has so painstakingly established to this point. It is almost as if Vince came from a broader comedy to invade this one and his presence threatens to upset the delicate tone of Cousins.


In many respects Cousins is a cinematic love letter to Isabella Rossellini. A natural beauty in her own right, the camera absolutely loves her and Schumacher makes sure that the actress is framed and lit just right. Initially, though, her hair is pulled back and she wears conservative attire, which visually conveys Maria’s repressed nature. When Larry takes her to see his boat she lets her hair down and begins wearing clothing that is less constrictive. Maria is soft-spoken but with firm convictions. Over the course of the film, she learns to let go and enjoy life but runs the risk of forgetting about her responsibility to Chloe who has been acting out at school. Rossellini does a fine job of portraying the conflicted nature that exists within Maria. She’s been the dutiful wife who’s put up with her husband’s philandering ways for so long that she’s lost touch with her own wants and needs. Larry helps her find them again.

Between his hit sitcom Cheers and popular comedies like Three Men and a Baby (1987), the 1980s was a good decade for Ted Danson. As a result, he was the biggest draw in Cousins. He plays the most relatable character as the fun-loving Larry. Danson doesn’t portray him as the kind of zany, lovable goofball type that comedians like Tom Hanks and Steve Martin made popular during this decade. He opts for a more grounded performance, playing a guy who seems easygoing but it is just a façade and he is bothered by his wife having an affair. Fortunately, his ruse with Maria is a pretty good distraction; however, eventually he has to accept the feelings he has for her if he truly wants to be happy.

The chemistry between Danson and Rossellini in the scene where Larry shows Maria his boat is incredible and feels authentic as we realize that these two people are starting to fall in love. All their scenes together are so enjoyable to watch because we want to see these people happy. Their conversations quickly move beyond the usual flirting to honest talk about their unfaithful spouses. At first, it is a game, tricking their significant others into thinking that they too are having an affair of their own, but the more time they spend together the more genuine their feelings are for each other. The screenplay lets this unfold naturally and in time.
  

In their own ways, Larry and Maria are natural nurturers while Tom and Tish are not. For example, Tom tries to bribe and then threaten his daughter not to bring her blanket in his car while Tish is unable to cheer up Mitch after a disastrous attempt to woo the girl of his dreams. Larry and Maria are completely opposites. She is unhappy because her husband cheats and her job as a legal aid exposes her to the ugly side of love while he is a dance instructor, teaching older couples how to dance. He sees people happily interacting with each other on a daily basis. She is a repressed housewife while he’s a dreamer and they soon find themselves drawn to each other. She’s charmed by his easygoing nature while he’s attracted to her beauty.

Tish starts off as a bit of a shrill stereotype and initially Sean Young plays her a bit on the broad side. It’s a thankless role playing the cheating spouse but as the film progresses she’s given the opportunity to flesh out her character so that we get some insight into what motivates Tish Once she realizes that Larry and Maria are falling in love she regrets her affair with Tom. We also get a nice scene between Tish and Tom as they confide in each other what is lacking in their respective marriages and what draws them to each other. Young does such a good job that you actually feel a slight twinge of sympathy for Tish.

This leaves William Petersen to play the bad guy in Cousins. Tom is a slick car salesman who takes himself way too seriously, even if others don’t, like when someone early on asks if he sells Subarus to which he replies, in a way that suggests he’s done it several times before, “I sell BMWs, I just happen to work out of a Subaru showroom.” He is a serial philanderer who breaks up with three different women so that he can continue his affair with Tish. Larry treats Maria like shit, cheating on her with many women before cutting them all loose for a hot and heavy affair with Tish. He’s a blowhard and a hypocrite, getting angry at Larry when he suspects the affair that is going on with his wife even though he’s having one of his own! Hot off the one-two punch of To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) and Manhunter (1986), Petersen brings the same level of intensity to Tom complete with an Alpha Male gusto that is in sharp contrast to Danson’s easygoing dreamer.


For a filmmaker who has made a lot of commercial hits and dabbled in numerous genres, Schumacher is not very well-regarded, due in large part to his most high-profile misfires, Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997). Has enough time passed to finally let him out of director’s jail for crimes against cinema? He’s served his time and I think he is due for a career reappraisal. For most of his career he’s made crowd-pleasers for Hollywood and Cousins is no different only that it is in terms of pacing and tone. It bounces back and forth between family drama and passionate romance while juggling several characters successfully. Schumacher brings a deft touch to the film, immersing us in this world and the characters that inhabit it. He adopts a leisurely pace that allows us to get to know these characters and care about what happens to them.

It doesn’t hurt that the script is smartly-written with well-drawn characters that transcend their archetypes (i.e. the wacky uncle, the repressed wife, the cheating cad, etc.) through several brief but significant moments that give us insight into them. With the exception of Tom, there are no clear cut good and bad characters – everyone contains shades of grey and this is what makes Cousins a more interesting film than Four Weddings and a Funeral. Schumacher is one of those directors who are only as good as the material he has to work with and the script by Stephen Metcalfe (Jacknife) is excellent. This allows the director to let his cast have fun with their characters and the situations they’re put in while he utilizes absolutely beautiful cinematography courtesy of Ralf Bode (Dressed to Kill) to create a warm and inviting film.

Producer William Allyn began pursuing the American rights to Cousin, cousine in 1985 and it took three years but his persistence finally paid off. Stephen Metcalfe, the resident playwright at the Globe Theater in San Diego, was hired to write the screenplay. Then, Joel Schumacher was offered the job to direct and was thrilled to be given “something so unusual, so special.” From the outset he wanted to present characters with “human flaws,” that were “heroic sometimes, silly sometimes and they make mistakes.”


Initially, when given the script, Isabella Rossellini was not interested in doing it because she was good friends with some of the people that made the original film and thought they might not approve of an American remake. She soon found out that they were thrilled with the idea and she agreed to do it. According to the actress, Schumacher cultivated a fun, creative atmosphere for the actors. For the wedding and party scenes, Schumacher hired entire families as extras so that all the actors had to do was “step into the atmosphere they created,” said Rossellini.

Cousins received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and praised Rossellini’s performance for creating the chance to “make her into a real movie star; she has the kind of qualities that audiences really respond to.” In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, “Mostly Stephen Metcalfe’s adapted screenplay succeeds with its burlesque belly laughs, complementing the lyrical affair of the lead pair.”

However, in her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Cousin, cousine was gently directed and featured an enchanting foursome … Cousins, by contrast, is ponderous and dull.” Finally, the Los Angeles Times’ Sheila Benson wrote, “What makes Cousins feel splintered is that while so much of it is delicately written, there is also a jarring crassness at times, sure-fire cuteness, ‘boffo lines’ or characters, like fake-wood siding tacked on to a beautifully constructed house.”


Cousins examines the value of communication between couples. Tom and Tish cheat on their spouses because they don’t know what they want and how to convey it. Larry and Maria get along so well because they speak honestly to each other. Naturally, this is part of what attracts them to each other. The lack of communication is what complicates the lives of these people and it only gets simpler once they figure out what they want from life, or, as Larry’s father tells him, “You’ve only got one life to live. You can either make it chicken shit or chicken salad.” It’s blunt and to the point but also gets to the heart of the matter, inspiring Larry to go for it. Cousins ends up being a thoughtful romantic comedy/drama hybrid with an engaging love affair between two very different people at its heart. Not a bad way to spend two hours of your time.


SOURCES


Farrow, Moira. “Making Cousins: An Excursion into Relativity.” The New York Times. February 5, 1989.

4 comments:

  1. J.D.
    I'm surprised no commentaries on this one.
    I enjoyed this film tremendously and what a cast.
    It was a quiet film compared to The Lost Boys but such a great character film.
    I quite disagree with Maslin and as always much more so with Ebert and yourself.

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    1. Actually, the lack of comments doesn't surprise me. This isn't a very popular movie among film buffs and it is also directed by Joel Schumacher and he's certainly not the most beloved filmmaker but I really love this film.

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  2. True, Joel is not "beloved," but I agree, a quality effort is on the screen here to be judged on its own merits.

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    1. Definitely. It is certainly proof that Schumacher is capable of quality if given the right material to work with.

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